The History of Capitalism

I recently returned from Ithaca, NY where I presented a paper at the Histories of Capitalism, 2.0 conference.  The conference, jointly hosted by several Cornell academic departments and part of the Cornell history department’s focus on studying the history of capitalism, was well run and a tremendous intellectual experience.  The conference opened with a plenary and reception on Thursday night and continued on Friday and Saturday with four additional plenaries and five sessions of panels.  It seemed like every panel had at least one paper that I was interested in.  There was a good mix of graduate students, younger faculty, and tenured faculty, and perhaps, best of all, the conference was affordable and featured plenty of food and beverages.  What more could a graduate student need?!

Following the final panel session on Saturday, the conference organizers, including Larry Glickman, Louis Hyman, and Dara Canchester (apologies if, in my ignorance, I left off anyone else who organized the conference), scheduled a session where graduate students discussed what they learned and heard over the course of the conference.  While non-graduate students were permitted to attend the session, they were not allowed to talk.  For the most part, only graduate students did speak.

Dr. Hyman convinced three of my fellow graduate students to go to the front of the room and lead the discussion with generous contributions from the rest of us in the audience.  We talked for a little more than half an hour about all manner of things from the role of cultural history in the history of capitalism to the “crisis” of the humanities.  Perhaps the most interesting topic was when we tangled with the definition of the history of capitalism.  My advisor, Bryant Simon, has suggested to me that the weakness of the history of capitalism is that it everything is part of the history of capitalism and therefore it carries little meaning as a field.  Citing Bryant’s concerns, I asked the group to discuss the definition or limits of the history of capitalism, suggesting that it seemed rather boundless to me (a sentiment that seemed to be echoed by some of the faculty in the room who weren’t supposed to talk, but couldn’t seem to control a few scattered mutterings of approval).  We did not come up with a clear answer in the session, but subconsciously the question continued to gnaw at me.  The entire session, however, was enjoyable and beneficial even though it was the last thing (well, aside from dinner) on the last day of the conference.

Perhaps due to a long night of celebrating at the end of the conference with a great (and large) group of grad students and faculty who stuck around deep into the night (I left at 11pm and it was still going strong) or the four-hour drive back to Philly that began at 9am, I was inspired to think more about the definition of the history of capitalism.  Now, let me be clear, I do not primarily define myself as a historian of capitalism.  I’m primarily a cultural historian (or as Larry Glickman wisely noted about my work, I’m a cultural historian of business).  To an extent, I’m also a historian of sports and a historian of business.  I have not attended Cornell’s history of capitalism summer camp (although it got rave reviews from my fellow conference attendees who have been there).  Clearly I think that my work touches on the history of capitalism or I would not have submitted an abstract to the conference in the first place, but how exactly does my work do that?  Is it because I write about a business?  A type of economic exchange?  Because I tangle with the promises of capitalism and a free society?  I’m not really sure and my work seems different from other scholars who also work on the history of capitalism.

Finally (alright, not really finally, it was maybe an hour into my drive home), I came across an idea that seemed to make sense to me.  The history of capitalism is a forum for bringing together different scholars (or scholarship) that is related to economic and labor exchanges, but might not otherwise come into conversation with one another.*  I realize that still leaves the field undefined, but at least for me, it gives the field, the conference, classes on the topic, a clear reason to exist.  I certainly came in contact with a good deal of scholarship that I, confined to the silo of my own dissertation, would not have had much of a chance to engage with.  I also know that scholars who are much more deeply enmeshed in the topic likely have their own, more concrete definitions of the field.  For me, at least, my definition helps me to articulate the benefits of the conference (in addition to the food, booze, and company, of course) and the value of the subfield to the broader study of history.

* I know that far more accomplished scholars took on the very question in a Journal of American History Interchange in September, 2014 and that Julia Ott essentially made the same point I am making.  Her perspective was echoed by several other eminent scholars as well.  However, it’s one thing to read such a statement in the JAH and another entirely to experience it and be able to grasp it.  It’s like the difference between using a secondary source to teach students about a topic and using a primary source.  A lot of students will trust the secondary source, but seeing the primary source and drawing the conclusion on their own offers a much firmer grasp of the idea.